Thursday, November 13, 2008

Life & Death: for the Love of God

It is the Platonic ideal to turn away from mortality, vulnerability, contingency, and mutability of the worldly appearances and to search for unchanging stability, clarity, and preciseness. It is a move away from the plural to the singular.

Reading, writing, thinking and talking about our vulnerability, though, does not make us any less vulnerable. However, it can give us ways to create lasting values despite our mortality. Recognizing the contingency of our horizons means that we can have the power to alter them.

All moral systems start by the acknowledgement that life of us finite beings itself ought to be an inherent value. Life itself is our source of values, without a life no values. If we do not value life in all its facets then we cannot create values. If life is not seen as the starting value one is not immoral – that means that one breaks the norms and values of a moral system – but amoral – that means that one goes beyond morality, i.e. nihilism, a leap into the void of nothingness.

An example of this nihilism can be seen in the movie ‘Funny Games’ by the Austrian Michael Haneke (1997, 2008 remake by the same author). In this movie people are murdered for no reason whatsoever. Haneke is critical of violence in such movies as ‘Pulp Fiction’ by Quentin Tarantino (1994). Tarantino does not give any reason for the use of violence other than entertainment value.

Another example is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s book ‘Crime and Punishment’. The main character of this book is Raskalnikov and he commits a murder to see if he can get away with it without feeling guilty. According to Raskalnikov, men like Napoleon Bonaparte are great because they can step over petty conventional morality. Raskalnikov, though, is no Napoleon, he has to deal with his internal struggle and he is punished by the conscience he tried to escape from in the first place.

If we keep Ludwig Wittgenstein’s adagio in mind that an aesthetic form or style shows an ethical perspective on the world, then how should we judge the actions of individuals in general and creations of artists in particular? A different moral perspective needs to be shown through a different form or style. How then should we judge the art work ‘For the Love of God’ (2007) by the British artist Damien Hirst? What does it all come to? What sense does it have or give? The use of a form or style without the will to show a perspective on one’s world is nihilistic.

‘For the Love of God’ is a platinum crust of a human skull of the eighteenth century, which Hirst bought at an antique shop. The skull is encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds, with which Hirst messed-up the global diamond market. Set on the forehead is a large, pear-shaped diamond, which is called the ‘Skull Star Diamond’. And the teeth are from the original skull.

Damien Hirst says in an interview (in ‘Oog’, Rijksmuseum magazine for art and history, no.4, 11-9-2008): “As an artist I try to make things that people can believe in, that they can relate to, that they can experience. You therefore have to show them as well ass possible.” An art work that is skillfully crafted can become immortal.

Dutch art historian Rudi Fuchs described ‘For the Love of God’ as ‘a supernatural skull, almost heavenly’. Fuchs relates the work to the ‘memento mori’ theme, which was popular in the Dutch Golden Age of the seventeenth century. Hirst selected a series of old paintings owned by the Rijksmuseum to be shown together with his work at this museum in Amsterdam.

Hirst explores human experiences: life, death, truth, love, immortality, money and art. The traditional ‘memento mori’ theme addresses the transience of human existence. Hirst says: “I am aware of mental contradictions in everything: I am going to die and I want to live for ever. I can’t escape the fact and I can’t let go of the desire.” ‘For the Love of God’ is therefore also a self-portrait. Hirst asked himself what the maximum is that can be thrown at death. Diamonds!

Hirst, obviously, employs irony. This irony can already be identified in the title. Irony is a way of dealing with contradictions. The danger of irony is that we can never know for sure what is meant. Or worse: total misunderstanding. Some call Hirst’s art vulgar and cheap (of course in a metaphorical sense, because those 8,601 diamonds are worth a fortune, the production was a stunning fourteen million British Pounds).

How to deal with disagreement, indeterminacy, inconsistency, incoherence, incongruity, ambivalence, heterogeneity, opacity, paradoxy, and uncertainty in our present-day modernity? Irony is one way, however, sometimes it can be misleading as well. Friedrich Nietzsche is the philosopher that warned us that ontological uncertainty causes anxiety, and possibly violence against the ‘stranger’, against what is ‘alien’. According to Zygmunt Bauman the task of philosophy today is to teach us how to deal with uncertainty and contingency. The search for absolute and universal values, though, is the existential need for traditional security.

The debates concerning abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty seem to show that we do not have a consensus on the question what constitutes man.

It is interesting to note that orthodox believers, who claim to believe in the sanctity of life, are against euthanasia and abortion (i.e. they claim to be pro-life) but they are not against the death penalty. They rather see man going to war then that they make love (i.e. homosexuality).

We can also apply the Wittgensteinian aesthetic ethics/ethical aesthetics on fundamentalists in general and terrorists in particular. Through what symbolic forms do they convey meaning?

According to the sociologist Julia Suryakusuma Islamist parties, like PKS, and organizations, like MUI and FPI, promote the prudish anti-pornography bill because in paradise lusty hookers await. In our mundane world the libido needs to be regulated. It is better to go to war – Jihad! – than to make love.

For the self-acclaimed martyrs await lusty hookers in paradise. They withdraw themselves from life – taking others, infidel bystanders, with them. Are these martyrs Dostoyevsky’s modern-day nihilists? They claim to know the exact ways of Allah even though the infinite is mysterious to us finite beings. Isn’t that more blasphemous that a cartoon of a Danish kafir who depicted the prophet as a terrorist?

Susan Sontag writes provocatively that the 9/11 terrorists are no cowards (‘Talk of the Town’ in ‘The New Yorker’, 24-9-2001). She writes: “Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? […] In the matter of courage (a neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators […], they were not cowards.”

It is questionable whether courage is a neutral virtue. Aristotle claims in the ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ that the deficiency of courage is cowardice and that the excess is rashness, i.e. a display of too much courage at the wrong place in the wrong time directed to the wrong people using the wrong means (bombs instead of words).

It is also problematic that Sontag puts the responsibility of the attack on the side of the American people working in those WTC towers; those Americans did not do this to themselves. Buruma and Margalit write in ‘Occidentalism, The West in the Eyes of its Enemies’: “anti-Americanism is sometimes the result of specific American policies […]. But whatever the U.S. government does or does not do is often beside the point. [… Occidentalism refers] not to American policies, but to the idea of America itself, as a rootless, cosmopolitan, superficial, trivial, materialistic, racially-mixed, fashion-addicted civilization.”

Terrorism and the war-on-terror kill the most precious value – life – by creating death and fear.

Amrozi showed a smile and thumbs-up when he heard the verdict for his part in the 2002 Bali-bombings. Amrozi views himself as a martyr; he dies for a just cause he claims. For him killing was an act of justice. For him those people are not innocent. He does not suffer from his conscience for he is convinced to have an entry ticket to paradise.

The survivors get a taste of revenge. The Indonesian justice system provides retaliation. Perhaps the death penalty is like a placebo that works for those who lost loved ones.

To view Amrozi as less than human, though, insults the court; he could have been killed right away. Is a world without the likes of Amrozi a safer place? No, I am afraid not. To make our place safer we need more than a tighter legal and security system. We need to know the soil of the Amrozis. And the Indonesian authorities postponed the execution for fear of the Muslim voice – for fear of the soil where the Amrozis are born. Moreover, Amrozi was turned in a celebrity due to heavy media exposure.

Is terrorism a form of art as a leap in imagination as some claim? No! Terrorists dehumanize. Terrorists take precious lives. And artists, when their work succeeds, create something immortal. Immortality is the wish to live forever in this imperfect world. And this immortality is not to be understood in the Platonic sense. Plato and terrorists yearn for eternity, i.e. for never having lived at all by leaping from an earthly life to the eternal life. For them life is punishment, not death, that is the reason why Amrozi smiled...

Also published in the Jakarta Globe, see here.

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